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All Tech Considered

Tech Fit For The Showroom, But The Runway Might Have To Wait

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 9:27 am

The human body is a limited piece of real estate.

For years, tech companies raced to make the smartphone a beautiful device with soft curves and bright screens. Now, the industry is racing to make clothes that free up your hands from the phone while still connecting you to streams of digital information.

Wearable technology is one of the trends at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and Billie Whitehouse, founder of Wearable Experiments, says her smart jacket with GPS navigation belongs on every woman's shoulders.

The Navigate Jacket integrates with the mapping app on your phone. Type in a destination and little vibrators built into the shoulder pads tap you on the left to turn left, on the right to turn right, and double tap when you've arrived.

"We're basically trying to give the customer their eyes back," Whitehouse says. "So when you're wandering around a city — say you've never been to New York before — you don't have to stare down at your phone the entire time."

A company that makes smart watches is showcasing a sleek new metallic band. It's called the Pebble Steel, and while it is slimmer than the firm's original plastic watch, the big face still hangs off my wrist. Spokeswoman Myriam Joire says that's a small price to pay for all the functionality in the mini computer.

"When you're outside your car, it shows you things like your tire pressure [and] where did you leave your car," Joire says. "If you're parked in a parking lot, [it] makes it easier to find."

A lot of women don't like watches, so Michael Lee of Erogear shows me a black high heel shoe. It has LED lights built into a wide ankle strap, making it a low-resolution screen that lights up, say in a dark club.

"Just like a Jumbotron, and it can also stream live Twitter feeds," Lee says. "Within two or three seconds of you uploading to your Twitter, it will actually show, after a profanity filter, obviously."

Many experts at CES are saying wearable devices will explode in 2014. Suddenly, we will all want smart-gadget gear that augments our body parts with data streams.

It's a bold vision with a nice dollar figure attached. At a briefing, Consumer Electronics Association senior researcher Kevin Tillman dropped the B-word.

"For wearables we see a 35 percent increase in year-over-year growth from 2012 to 2013, up to $1.2 billion in 2014," Tillman said.

But the "Year of Wearables" may be many years away.

I emailed a picture of the black high heel that streams Twitter to Eva Chen, the editor-in-chief of Lucky Magazine in New York, who goes to fashion shows, not electronics shows.

"Wow, that is something else," Chen says. "You know it's definitely a fashion statement, I would say that much."

Chen self-identifies as a tech enthusiast in fashion, she's even tried on Google Glass eyewear. But, Chen says, most shoppers don't look for smart. They look for style.

"At the end of the day, the fashion industry is a very image-driven industry and it has to look right," she says. "And it has to be ultimately what someone wants to wear; because if people don't want to wear it, then it's not going to sell."

Apple recently recruited a top executive from luxury brand Burberry, and Intel is partnering with Barneys New York to create a new wearables product line.

Chen says maybe the fashion leaders can get tech on to more bodies.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For years, tech companies battled to see who could make the most beautiful smartphone with soft curves, bright screens and clever technology. Well, now the industry is competing to make clothes that free our hand from our phones, but still connect us to streams of digital information. It's called wearable technology and its one of the latest crazes at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Aarti Shahani, of member station KQED, roamed the floor searching for wearables that she'd actually want to wear. And she sent this report.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The human body is a limited piece of real estate. And Billie Whitehouse, founder of Wearable Experiments, says her smart jacket with GPS navigation belongs on every woman's shoulders. She has me try it.

Oh-oh, my arms. OK, thank you.

BILLIE WHITEHOUSE: Do you feel like you're wearing electronics?

SHAHANI: No, it's just like a nice salmon-colored jacket. Good fit.

The navigate jacket integrates with the mapping app on your phone. Type in a destination and little vibrators built into the shoulder pads tap you on the left to turn left, and on the right to turn right. And double tap when you've arrived.

WHITEHOUSE: We're basically trying to give the customer their eyes back. So when you're wandering around a city, say you've never been to New York before, you don't have to stare down at your phone the entire time.

SHAHANI: A company that makes smart watches is showcasing a sleek new metallic band. It's called the Pebble Steel. And while it is slimmer than their original plastic watch, the big face still hangs off my wrist. Spokeswoman Myriam Joire says that's a small price to pay for all the functionality in the mini computer.

MYRIAM JOIRE: When you're outside your car, it shows you things like your tire pressure, where did you leave your car, like the address. If you're parked in a parking lot, it makes it easier to find.

SHAHANI: A lot of women don't like watches. So Michael Lee, of Arrow Gear, of shows me a black high-heel shoe. It has LED lights built into a wide ankle strap, making it a low-resolution screen that lights up, say in a dark club.

MICHAEL LEE: Just like a Jumbotron. And it can also stream live Twitter feeds. Within two or three seconds of you actually uploading to your Twitter, it will actually respond and directly show after a profanity filter - obviously.

SHAHANI: Many experts at Consumer Electronics Show are saying wearable devices will explode in 2014. Suddenly, we will all want smart-gadget gear that augments our body parts with data streams. It's a bold vision with a nice dollar figure attached.

At a briefing, Consumer Electronics Association senior researcher Kevin Tillman dropped the B-word.

KEVIN TILLMAN: We see a 35 percent increase in year-over-year growth from 2012 to 2013, up to $1.2 billion in 2014.

SHAHANI: You think it's going to be a billion-dollar industry.

TILLMAN: Yes, that's what we're projecting for 2014.

SHAHANI: But the year of wearables may be many years away. I e-mailed a picture of the black high heel that streams Twitter to an expert in New York, who goes to fashion shows, not electronics shows.

EVA CHEN: Wow. That is something else. You know it's definitely a fashion statement, I would say that much.

SHAHANI: Eva Chen, the editor-in-chief of Lucky Magazine, part of the Conde Nast empire. She self-identifies as a tech enthusiast in fashion. She's even tried on Google Glass eyewear. But, Chen says, most shoppers don't look for smart. They look for style.

CHEN: At the end of the day, you know, the fashion industry is a very image-driven industry and it has to look right. And it has to be ultimately what someone wants to wear, because if people don't want to wear it then it's not going to sell.

SHAHANI: Apple recently recruited talent from the luxury brand Burberry. Intel is partnering with Barneys New York to create a new wearables product line. Chen says maybe the fashion leaders can get tech on to more bodies.

From NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.